Daily Archives: 19 April 2009

Balls, dirty tricks and candidate selection

The revelations in the Sunday Times this weekend about Ed Balls being the secret puppetmaster behind “smeargate” seem a little thin to me, but they do remind me of an incident a few years ago.

Long time readers may recall my ill-fated campaign to get Ed Balls a sex change operation so that he could stand in an all-women-shortlist having had his seat abolished by the Boundary Commission. In the event, he didn’t need one after Colin Challen decided to stand down and leave the newly created constituency of Morley and Outwood open for Balls to take (conveniently enough, no all woman shortlist was imposed of course).

What I reported at the time, from a good source close to Challen, was that he had jumped after a dirty tricks campaign had been launched to discredit him. The most high profile example of that campaign was the secret briefing that had gone on to make a bicycle accident he had been involved in look like an attention-seeking exercise.

I found the failure of the mainstream media (and, it has to be said, Guido), to join the dots and ask pretty basic questions about all this remarkable at the time. If it had been challenged, Balls could have had to struggle to find another safe seat (especially one so close to his wife’s). With Damian McBride now exposed, this is a possible avenue that journalists might want to explore further.

Candidate selection seems to be a particularly murky business in the Labour Party. The Guardian carried a very anti-Georgina Gould story yesterday, alleging that Margaret McDonough’s PR agency bbm communications helped run her selection campaign and co-ordinated a dodgy postal vote strategy. But the other side of the story – specifically that Charlie Whelan was running Rachael Maskell’s campaign in a similar manner – seems equally unsavoury. And as Alice Mahon has been keen to emphasise, this is not an isolated incident.

The overall picture is of a party utterly dominated by a self-serving elite (or, more precisely, a number of interconnected self-serving elites and dynastic families). I suspect it will require at least a couple of Parliaments in opposition for them to start to sort themselves out and become something resembling a proper party again.

Why Clegg needs to kick the donor habit

Despite the Observer’s best efforts, it is hard to see what the Lib Dems have actually done wrong here. Indeed, given how high minded the “serious” press are being about smears at the moment, it is surprising to see an article so riddled with innuendo. So let’s clear a few points up.

Firstly, there is no issue here of a donor buying policy; quite the opposite. There is an argument that the party should not accept further donations from Sudhir Choudhrie unless he is cleared of any wrong doing, but that is another matter.

Secondly £95,000 is not, in party funding terms, that much money. Rajeev Syal and Oliver Laughland implicitly acknowledge this by trying to attract your attention with the much bigger £475,000 figure donated by “relatives’ companies” but we aren’t talking about his wife here but companies his son and nephew run. The former, Alpha Healthcare, has been donating to the party far longer (and is the subject of some other news reports). There is no suggestion that this money has in any way come from Sudhir Choudhrie himself. And if you’re going to bring nephews into it, where do you stop? Third cousins?

But there is a lesson here for Clegg that he would do well to heed. Politics and money are a toxic mix. Even when nobody can be said to have done anything wrong, too often it leads to the wrong sort of headlines. And one thing the Lib Dems can’t afford to be seen as, as they creep up the polls (and I have to admit I’m relatively optimistic about how we might do in the next general election), is just another part of the shameless political class.

Clegg has done himself a lot of good in coming out for stringent reform of MPs’ expenses (it happens that I disgree with him on some of the detail, but it is far reaching nonetheless). He has also made great play out of demanding a cap on donations of £25,000 (half the Tories half-hearted call for £50,000 which they failed to follow up with actual votes when the Political Parties and Elections Bill went through the Commons earlier this year). With the economic climate and public mood such as it is, I think now is the perfect time for him to go one step further. He should impose a cap on the party, regardless of what the law says, and call on the other parties to do the same.

At what point that cap should be should be considered. In an ideal world, he might consider self-imposing his own £25,000-per-year cap, but given the other parties are unlikely to play ball, at least in the short term, that might be going a little too far. But what about £25,000-per-quarter? It would be simpler to administer than an annual cap and would go some way to matching the rhetoric with action while not leaving the party at a massive competitive disadvantage.

And how would it affect the party in real terms? Well, for the most part, even our large donations are in the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands (and even millions). In 2008, only two companies donated more than £100,000 – the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd. and Marcus Evans Ltd. (a non-cash donation). So in reality we would lose very little.

What we would gain is some degree of immunisation from this sort of story – and complete immunisation from things like the Michael Brown scandal. We would also be seen to be practicing what we preach – something we aren’t seen to be doing nearly often enough. In the longer term, I suspect that will be worth far more than a couple of hundred thousand pounds.